Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy ed. by Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith (review)
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Reviewed by
Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith, editors. Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy. BRILL, 2016. 442 pp.

TRAGEDY IS ONE OF THE MOST DISTINCTIVE ancient genres, a well-known object of high literary prestige. However, the consensus that surrounds its relevance starts to wane when attempting to come to a definition of the genre itself. Criticism has frequently focused on dissociating the tragic and tragedy as genre (or mode). If somebody, like the two editors of this well-grounded volume, adds furthermore the permeable qualifications Baroque and Classicist to the term tragedy, the challenge is considerable. Nonetheless, the authors in this collection of essays delve forcefully into the intricacies of Baroque and Classicist tragedy with the wish to contribute to the scholarly debate on the use of these terms within the history of drama and theater, and of political theology. The focus lies on the conjoined character of politics and aesthetics, since "tragedy was an 'aesthetic' way of thinking about many things, and it was particularly suited to rumination upon public affairs" (5). This drama, mainly concerned with the well-known theme of exposing the evils of political tyranny, articulated over time more elaborate and sophisticated themes reflecting on sovereignty, religion, authority, righteousness of rebellion, ethical issues, etc. Tragedy, as undeniable part of the public sphere, exposed, supported, or challenged current perspectives and revealed par excellence the power of literature, and particularly of theater.

The book's fourteen chapters are organized into four sections, following an impressive introduction by the two editors, Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith, that serves to successfully frame the sections against the historical backdrop of tragedy and to clarify the rationale of the volume. It also offers a wealth of relevant bibliography to date. The four parts that constitute the spine of the volume are sovereignty, religion, ethics, and mobility. With this last part, maybe not obvious at a first glance, the book contributes also to the knowledge of cultural migration of literature throughout Europe and engages with the most recent research lines on the transnational transmission of theater. [End Page 123] Notwithstanding this formal structure into four thematic blocks, the limits are obviously porous and many of these topics come to the fore in the other parts as well. In this way, we see, for instance, that the contribution on Cicognini (essay 9) is categorized under 'ethics' but also deals with sovereignty and intense cultural exchange, or that religion is strongly present in the essay on French tragedy also placed under ethics (essay 10) or how in essay 11 (theme mobility) the focus lies on plays that concentrate on the overarching trend that increasingly separates political sovereignty from morality.

The valuable aspects of this book are manifold. One of the main assets is the focus on the intimate links between tragedy and history and the special attention paid to a field that has received less attention than the treatment of history in contemporary vernacular drama: the rich magnitude of historical themes in Neo-Latin theater. Neo-Latin authors do not merely relate to ancient paradigms, in a form of continuation of the tragic drama, but rather reveal the relevant role of Neo-Latin drama in the development of European drama, showing how the humanist tradition from the Low Countries, for instance, exercised unparalleled influence on other contexts like the German lands. Another relevant aspect is the attention paid to Counter Reformation tragedy, a corpus that has been frequently dismissed in the past, whereas the theatrical repertoire of the Baroque tragedy of Jesuits can be considered as a global phenomenon. Far from offering a monolithic 'success model,' their repertoire displayed an incredible variety of form and contents since they were always open to local traditions and resources (essay 6).

Equally interesting is the fact that this volume reminds us how the establishment of national literatures in the nineteenth century strongly focused on the singularity of all vernacular European literatures, and therefore on the singularity of separate national tragedies, whereas the European world of letters was obviously created in a flow of exchange and cross-fertilization, with templates that could be borrowed and adjusted as deemed necessary. We...


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